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The Public Archaeology of Death

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From the tomb of Tutankhamun to the grave of Richard III, archaeologists have studied, displayed and debated rich and varied evidence of the burial and commemoration of the dead from past times to the present day. Mortuary data is not only a key window into the human past, it defines and resonates through 20th and 21st-century popular culture. Yet, in many regards, archaeologists’ engagements with death and the dead are contentious and problematic, emotional and political. For instance, in what circumstances if at all is it ethical to dig up and display human remains? What do people learn from meeting ancient people in museums and heritage sites? How significant is mortuary archaeology in our own present-day imaginings of prehistoric and historical societies, as well as fantastical and fictional societies portrayed in literature and film?

Tackling questions such as these, osteoarchaeologists and mortuary archaeologists have often found themselves at the forefront of the public engagements for interdisciplinary and archaeological research. This book identifies a series of lacunae in recent discussions of mortuary archaeology’s interactions with contemporary society. It aims to re-evaluate the range and character of public mortuary archaeology critically through a range of case studies from the UK, Europe and farther afield. In particular, this book seeks to address a network of relationships between mortality, material culture and archaeological theory, method and practice through a series of themes that connect the digging, display and dissemination of mortuary contexts and remains with wider popular culture themes and media.

Published: Jan 1, 2019

Book Contributors

Section Chapter Authors
List of Figures Howard Williams
List of Tables Howard Williams
Foreword Jodie Lewis
Dead Relevant: Introducing the Public Archaeology of Death Howard Williams
The St Patrick’s Chapel Excavation Project: Public Engagement with the Rescue Excavation of an Early Medieval Cemetery in South West Wales Marion Shiner, Katie Hemer, Rhiannon Comeau
Death’s Diversity: the Case of Llangollen Museum Suzanne Evans, Howard Williams
Displaying the Deviant: Sutton Hoo’s Sand People Madeline Walsh, Howard Williams
Grave Expectations: Burial Posture in Popular and Museum Representations Sian Mui
Photographing the Dead: Images in Public Mortuary Archaeology Chiara Bolchini
Death on Canvas: Artistic Reconstructions in Viking Age Mortuary Archaeology Leszek Gardeła
Envisioning Cremation: Art and Archaeology Aaron Watson, Howard Williams
Controversy Surrounding Human Remains from the First World War Sam Munsch
Here lies ‘ZOMBIESLAYER2000’, May He Rest in Pieces: Mortuary Archaeology in MMOs, MMORPGs, and MOBAs Rachael Nicholson
Death’s Drama: Mortuary Practice in Vikings Season 1–4 Howard Williams
Afterword Karina Croucher
End Matter
Index Howard Williams


Well-produced and professionally edited.... There are no weak links in a collection of essays that consider how members of the public encounter the buried dead in museums, illustrations, photography and online games, at excavations and on TV.
British Archaeology

Remind[s] us of the need to challenge assumptions about archaeology, whether that is attitudes towards treatment of the dead, or our understanding of how archaeology operates as a tool of CRM. While [the book] may make discomforting reading ... [it calls] for a re-evaluation of our role as archaeologists, and for a robust defence of the value and relevance of archaeology in the modern world.

The quality of the work of the students here eloquently refutes any critical presumptions that might arise from their lack of experience. Innovative activities that promote the involvement of new scholars enrich the research community in which we all participate, and are especially fitting for a book focused on so democratic a subject as public archaeology.
Medieval Archaeology

Overall, this volume contains much food for thought. A welcome contribution to our disciplinary awareness of how our work matters outside the academy.
Norwegian Archaeological Review